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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3B

Agency Status
PIF: 2

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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
Nonbreeding plumage (September-March) is black and white. The head is topped with a gray crown bordering on white cheeks; this border extending in a rather straight line from behind the eyes. The front of the neck, flanks and belly are dingy white. In breeding plumage, the neck and flanks are ruddy in color, the crown and cheeks are black and a stripe of white to gold feathers extends back from the eye.

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Most easily confused with the Eared Grebe, but differs from this species by having the forehead rise to a peak at the rear of the crown rather than in the middle (as with the Eared), a thicker neck and thicker bill with the lower mandible lacking an up-turned tip (all features of Eared Grebes), and a less rounded back without the fluffier rear-end. Eared Grebe also lacks the whitish patch at the base of the forewing that are visible in flight.

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Western Hemisphere Range


Range Comments
Breeding range extends from interior Alaska across the boreal region of Canada to Hudson Bay, south in eastern British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to northwestern and extreme northeastern Montana, and central North Dakota, with isolated populations in Oregon. Winters along the Pacific coast to northern Baja California and the lower Colorado River, central Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains, along the Atlantic coast, and across the southeastern U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico.

Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 2180

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Migratory. Present throughout the year, but only in small numbers during winter. Spring arrival appears to occur during late March to early May, autumn departure in October and November (Saunders 1921, Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Arrival dates for western Montana are 31 March to 29 April (Hand 1969). At Fortine, spring arrival averages 25 April, and ranges from 4 April to 9 May (Weydemeyer 1973). At Bozeman, spring arrival averages about 21 April (12 April the earliest record), with peaks about 26 April and gone by 1 June; autumn movement begins about 8 September, peaks around 3 November, and ends around 20 November (Skaar 1969).

Horned Grebes use shallow freshwater ponds and marshes with beds of emergent vegetation (especially sedges, rushes and cattails), including in Montana (Dubois 1919, Weydemeyer 1932). In spring and fall the Horned Grebe is found mainly on large sized bodies of water, including rivers and small lakes. The winter range consists of large sized bodies of fresh and more commonly salt water; usually inshore (Stedman 2000).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
The Horned Grebe feeds on aquatic arthropods in the summer; and fish and crustaceans in winter, especially amphipods, crayfish, and polychaetes (Stedman 2000). Occupies Lincoln County, Montana ponds and lakes without fish during the breeding season (Weydemeyer 1932).

BBS is not suitable for monitoring this species in Montana; there were significant survey-wide declines of 2.7% per year during 1966-2009 and 2.9% per year during 1999-2009. Reported 24 of 31 winters on Montana Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) during 1979-80 to 2009-10, from both sides of the Continental Divide but usually in the western half of the state; high total number was 73 (0.0318/party hour) on three counts in 2009-10. Mean annual CBC totals for all other winters when reported (n = 23) was 5.8, with only three of those reporting as many as10 to 12 individuals. No obvious trend is evident, although years reporting no Horned Grebes occurred prior to winter 1993-94; the winter of 2009-10 is anomolous relative to all prior winters.

Reproductive Characteristics
The Horned Grebe breeds on small ponds, potholes, and lake inlets containing a mixture of emergent vegetation and open water. In Lincoln County, Montana, reported only on rush-grown lakes (Weydemeyer 1932) and in flooded grasslands of Teton County (Dubois 1919). The floating nest is usually concealed in the vegetation. The Horned Grebe is intensely territorial and usually nests alone or occasionally in small colonies. The young are fed and warmed by a parent for a few days after hatching (Stedman 2000). In Montana, nests have been reported 28 May to 18 July, young 12 July to 25 August (Dubois 1919, Saunders 1921, Weydemeyer 1975, Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012); one nest contained 6 eggs on 12 June.

Stable water levels are important for nest success and brood rearing. Any conservation efforts in wetland habitats should prove beneficial to this species. Implementation of a state-wide colonial waterbird monitoring program should be part of any management effort (Casey 2000).

Threats or Limiting Factors
Greatest threats include wetland drainage, fluctuating water levels and chemical contaminants at breeding areas, oil spills and pesticide accumulation during winter.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Dubois, A. 1919. An experience with horned grebes (Colymbus Auritus). The Auk 36(2): 170-180.
    • Hand, R.L. 1969. A distributional checklist of the birds of western Montana. Unpublished. Available at Mansfield Library, University of Montana, Missoula.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Saunders, A.A. 1921. A distributional list of the birds of Montana: With notes on the migration and nesting of the better known species. Pacific Coast Avifauna No. 14. pp. 38-39, 118-119.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Weydemeyer, W. 1932. Notes on the food of grebes. Auk 49:456.
    • Weydemeyer, W. 1973. The spring migration pattern at Fortine, Montana. Condor 75:400-413.
    • Weydemeyer, W. 1975. Half-century record of the breeding birds of the Fortine area, Montana: Nesting data and population status. Condor 77:281-287.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • [WWPC] Washington Water Power Company. 1995. 1994 wildlife report Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge Reservoirs. Washington Water Power Company. Spokane, WA.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Burleigh, T.D. 1972. Birds of Idaho. The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, ID. 467 pp.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Ferguson, R.S. and S.G. Sealy. 1983. Breeding ecology of the horned grebe, Podiceps auritus, in southwestern Manitoba. Canadian Field-Naturalist. 97:401-408.
    • Gniadek, S. 1983. Southwest Glendive Wildlife Baseline Inventory. Miles City, Mont: Bureau of Land Management, Miles City District Office. 56 pp with appendices.
    • Hays, R., R.L. Eng, and C.V. Davis (preparers). 1984. A list of Montana birds. Helena, MT: MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1979. Birds of the Great Plains: breeding species and their distribution. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 539 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Joslin, Gayle, and Heidi B. Youmans. 1999. Effects of recreation on Rocky Mountain wildlife: a review for Montana. [Montana]: Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • McEneaney, T. 1988. Birds of Yellowstone. Roberts Rineheart, Inc., Boulder, CO. 171 pp.
    • Oechsli, L.M. 2000. Ex-urban development in the Rocky Mountain West: consequences for native vegetation, wildlife diversity, and land-use planning in Big Sky, Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Montana State University, Bozeman. 73 p.
    • Palmer, R.S. 1962. Handbook of North American birds. Volume 1. Loons through flamingos. Yale University Press, New Haven. 567 pp.
    • Rundquist, V.M. 1973. Avian ecology on stock ponds in two vegetational types in north-central Montana. Ph.D. Dissertation. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 112 p.
    • Salt, W.R. and J.R. Salt. 1976. The birds of Alberta. Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, Alberta. xv + 498 pp.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69.
    • Stedman, S.J. 2000. Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus). Species Account Number 505. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Stewart, R.E. 1975. Breeding birds of North Dakota. Tri-College Center for Environmental Studies, Fargo, North Dakota. 295 pp.
    • Stewart, R.E. and H.A. Kantrud. 1972. Population estimates of breeding birds in North Dakota. The Auk 89(4):766-788.
    • Sugden, L.G. 1977. Horned grebe breeding habitat in Saskatchewan Parklands. Can. Field-Nat. 91:372-376.
    • Swan River National Wildlife Refuge. 1982. Birds of the Swan River NWR. Kalispell, MT: NW MT Fish and Wildlife Center pamphlet.
    • Thompson, L.S. 1981. Circle West wildlife monitoring study: Third annual report. Technical report No. 8. Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Helena, Montana.
    • Thompson, Richard W., Western Resource Dev. Corp., Boulder, CO., 1996, Wildlife baseline report for the Montana [Montanore] Project, Lincoln and Sanders counties, Montana. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit and Proposed Plan of Operation, Montanore Project, Lincoln and Sanders Counties, Montana. Vol. 5. Stroiazzo, John. Noranda Minerals Corp., Libby, MT. Revised September 1996.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Waldt, R. 1995. The Pine Butte Swamp Preserve bird list. Choteau, MT: The Nature Conservancy. Updated August 1995.
    • Watts, C.R. and L.C. Eichhorn. 1981. Changes in the birds of central Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 40:31-40.
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Horned Grebe — Podiceps auritus.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from